Sexy Science - The new technology of the love triangle

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Mobile phones and the internet make it easier to instigate affairs and casual flings but is technology changing our attitudes to long-term relationships or just facilitating our natural mating psychology?

IN A RECENT sorry case of high-flying infidelity, an indignant wife was left cursing mobile phones after her husband's in-flight entertainment – a perky 27-year-old with whom he'd decided to join the mile-high club during one long-haul journey – decided to track him down.

The young woman concerned sent him her contact details, he phoned her, and then began an affair that apparently involved her texting him day and night, much to the consternation of his wife.

The wife railed at mobile phones for allowing such a travesty to take place, but was it the fault of modern communication systems, or was it simply that her husband has a penchant for playing away?

Evolutionary psychologist David Schmitt of Bradley University, Illinois, says it comes down to trust and, if one doesn't trust a spouse, the facilities for texting or e-mailing just give more avenues for mistrust to drive the relationship apart.

Schmitt thinks there is potential for such technologies to feed into our "natural mating psychology".

For instance, he says: "I think it's fair to say many married men are spending a lot of time consuming internet pornography. If women traditionally felt that consuming magazine pornography was some form of betrayal (not all women do), then it's possible the rise of high rates of internet pornography consumption could have negative consequences for marriages."

What about online dating? One guy told me that a lot of his friends were treating relationships with women they met via e-mail or chatrooms like disposable tissues. He said they didn't bother to work at a relationship and make something of it because it was so easy to go back online and find another date. I guess though that this depends on what sort of attitudes to relationships the men have already.

Schmitt says that, overall, men would be more likely than women to use these forms of communication to look for multiple short-term relationships, since, over evolutionary time, men who had sex with lots of women contributed more genes to future generations. But only attractive men with something to offer are likely to be successful at this. Men can and do increase their success rate by faking long-term interests, since women are more likely to be looking for committed relationship.

Not all women are going for the long-term option, though, and Schmitt carried out an experiment showing that women sending cues to easy sexual access elicit the desire for a fling even among men usually oriented towards long-term relationships.

This certainly squares with the experience of another lady I know. She has a liking for men a fair bit younger than her and, while she accepts she's unlikely to be able to land such a man for a committed relationship, internet dating allows her at least casual relationships if she makes her intentions clear.

But of course there are plenty of people, men and women, who look for and find long-term love online, with marriages and babies to boot. It can provide a much bigger pool of opportunities, and it's an important lifeline for people who find it difficult to meet like-minded others because of their particular circumstances. Likewise, mobile phones and e-mails can help keep romance alive in long distance relationships or for couples who are kept apart by work and travel.

It seems to me that whether it's text-based adultery or true romance via e-mail, technology doesn't change our natures or our desires when it comes to love and sex. But it may well make acting on them a lot easier.